Watch what you say

I, and some of the other writers on this site, have written several articles about free speech and watching what you say. They are always somewhat controversial, often generating heated comments and discussion.

However, this article is a little different. It is not about deportation, vendettas, or anything of the sort. Rather, it is an example of how a cultural misunderstanding can hurt, not the person saying the words, but someone else. I’ll explain. While travelling in Bangladesh last week, I did something really stupid. Unintentional, but stupid, nonetheless. Yes, it did not happen in the Philippines. However, the location most certainly could have been here. Additionally, the harm it could have caused could easily have happened here.

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So, my colleagues and I were at our hotel, eating breakfast. One of the staff, the concierge, came to our table, and we were chatting with her, and she was being very helpful as to answering our questions, making some logistical arrangements for us, and going above and beyond a normal employee’s duties, or so we thought.


So, as we are finishing, she brings us our bill and says, “Please fill out the comments card if you have anything you wish to tell management.” So, my colleague and I fill in the card. Last question:

“Were our staff helpful and accommodating to your needs during your stay?”

Our response: “Excellent employee, who was more than helpful. This girl deserves a raise.”

So, we wrote that down, trying to be nice. Lots of people complain, but I also feel that service employees deserve praise when they do an outstanding job. We pack up and leave to our meetings, and I didn’t think much of it after that.

So, the next morning, we are at breakfast, and we see the concierge again. She looks really disturbed, and my colleague asks, “Is everything OK? Yesterday you were so smiling and helpful.”

Her response:

“I got into trouble because of that comment you guys left in the survey.”

“Huh? Why? We said you were an excellent employee.”

As it turns out, her manager thought that she had been discussing her salary with us, something that is normally somewhat taboo, but especially in Asia. She was reprimanded, and threatened with termination.

Needless to say, we were both surprised and felt really bad that the incident had happened. We had intended the remark to be something good, not to get anyone into trouble. We offered to speak with her manager to sort things out, but she requested that we not do so. Since we were afraid that it might get her into further trouble, we honored her wish. About thirty minutes later, as we were getting ready to leave, the manager approaches us and asks, “Excuse me, but I would like to ask if ____ discussed her salary with you gentlemen?”

Both of us immediately said, unequivocally “NO, she did not!” Furthermore, we stated that there was a cultural misunderstanding happening here… We simply were praising a good job from one of the hotel employees. That was all. Very apologetic, I said that it was just our way of saying, “Good job.”

After about five minutes, the manager understood what we had done, and assured us that the employee was not in any trouble.

The point about all of this is that cultural misunderstandings are inevitable, on some level, no matter how well-travelled you are, no matter how long you live somewhere. The remark we made in the survey, innocuous in most Western countries, would have been taken at its’ intended meaning: The employee would have been told, or at least given an “Atta Boy” or “Good Job!”, not threatened with termination. Was I careless? Certainly. I have travelled enough to know that there are times that saying nothing is the best course of action. I also know that salary is often a subject best left alone. I can blame it on being busy, thinking of other things, or whatnot… Bottom line, I got careless.

I am human, though. I make mistakes like anyone else. I am grateful that the matter was resolved, without the girl losing her job.

This could easily have happened in the Philippines. Developing world, luxury hotel, those jobs are in high demand, and employees employees in those positions are often holding college degrees. This type of job is hard to obtain. Employees are often terminated upon the flimsiest of excuses. She could have been harmed by an innocent remark.

Employees in the Philippines are typically not empowered to a great extent. They often can do very little in the face of complaints. They often have only very limited, if any, authority to make decisions or to solve problems. There is nothing wrong with saying that someone did a good job. However, as illustrated above, the way it is said can make a big difference.

This was probably my biggest cultural mistake in my career… Previously, my next “less than shining” moment occurred once in Japan, during a sales presentation. We were discussing a harbour radar system and I was asked about an example. Focusing on the technical answer, and thinking of an example, my mind shifted to a similar system used in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. So, I draw a little diagram of the harbor on the white board, trying to show the harbor layout and location of radar arrays, and, in a room full of Japanese, I blurt out, “You guys know Pearl Harbor, right?”

Needless to say, there were a number of icy stares.  I recovered, and we were all drunk that evening (Did not lose business), but not my most spectacular success, and nobody was harmed. The incident with the concierge could have really messed up her livelihood.

So, I am relating this story to make the point that you need to think about what you say, and how you say it. This type of discussion goes way beyond the “free speech” argument… What you say can cause harm, even if unintended.

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.

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  1. says

    I will be making my permanent (?) move to the Philippines in two weeks. I have set up a blog to cover both my transition, arrival and adjustment. Once there I plan to write my observations along with some radio/video work as I find the time.

    While discussing this with my adult son, I told him about Jimmy Siezca and all the trouble he found himself in with his, “20 Reasons I Dislike the Philippines” video. That video brought home the point that “how” something is phrase can make a huge difference between the American and Philippine audience who comes across it. Some subjects, like the salary issue you wrote on, are best left unbreached.

    I’m sure Filipinos love any article or video that shines the spotlight on why tourists should come and experience their island. But meanwhile, I don’t want to give readers the impression that it’s all white sandy beaches, umbrella drinks and snorkeling either. So somewhere in there is a fine line between bringing out the best the Philippines has to offer.. while still educating future visitors on the grittier side of reality on the islands.

    As for inter-personal etiquettes, it is through people like you willing to share your experiences that we can get a ‘heads-up’ on what to be sensitive to during our travels so, thanks!

    • John Miele says

      Henry: Gl;ad you found the article helpful. I try for some balance good / bad in what I write on here.

    • Isagani Cruz says

      Henry: Where can we find your blog? Please share the URL, as I’m sure lots of people can benefit from the information you plan to put in there.

      • John Miele says

        Isagani: If you click on Henry’s name in his comment, it takes you to a blog… Not certain if that is the one to which he is referring, though.

      • Miss August says

        I went and visited his site, “Life Beyond The Sea.” His articles are well-written and insightful. If he follow his own advice, he will do fine in the Philippines.

        • says

          Thanks for visiting. So far the response from Filipinos about my site is that I am being fair in my observations while still bringing out what a great country the Philippines is to both visit and retire. I hope to continue doing so but always wonder whether someone at some time will misunderstand something I write and take offense. I can only control what I write, not what someone ‘thinks’ I said. But so far, no problems. :)

  2. Miss August says

    Thank you, John for sharing your experience with us and reminding everyone to be mindful of what they say. Even a very innocent remark, joke, or cliché can be interpreted differently. Cultural differences will always be there no matter how well traveled or how long a person have lived in another country.

    I’m glad she didn’t lose her job!

    The story about your sales presentation cracks me up! :-)

    • John Miele says

      Miss August: When we found out about it, we really felt bad… I am also relieved that she didn’t lose her job.

  3. Donna west says

    dont be too hard on yourself Bob. sounds like an easy mistake to make. I definetely would have said the same thing. Which makes me think of how many times I will “stick my foot in my mouth” while I am in the Philippines.

    • John Miele says

      Donna: All you can do is try your best… We all make mistakes, but as long as you learn from them,.

  4. Robert says

    Interesting. I remember reading a book on how not to offend people in the Philippines before my first trip there, which was also my first trip out of the US.
    The Pearl Harbor story is actually kind of funny. Sometime innocent comments can be taken wrong even within your own culture.

    • John Miele says

      Robert: Yeah, the Pearl Harbor remark was while I was focused on a technical issue… I honestly let history knowledge fly out the window on that one (It was during a question / answer session, so no preparation…).

        • Ricardo Sumilang says

          With due respect, for what purpose would reminding the Japanese about Pearl Harbor serve, Jim? The Japanese would like to forget that particular part of their history. What if they remind us about the civilian carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? There is no question they were a sneaky bunch at the time, but, at least, Pearl and Hickam were military targets.

          • Jim Hannah says

            Ricardo, what can I say to you that does not infringe LIP’s politeness rules? For goodness sake man, are you really Sheldon Cooper? Can’t you just let a wee joke pass? I could engage in an intellectually challenging conversation about this…but who has the time??????

            • Ricardo Sumilang says

              Sorry, Jim, if I hurt your feelings. This is an opinion forum, if you have an opinion, say it and move on. If you want to flame me for my opinion, go right ahead. You should think things through before opening your mouth. Intellectual conversation? I am still waiting for your response to my rebuttal about your claim that the U.S. did not win the first Persian Gulf War. That was about two years ago. Check the archives. If you wish to continue the “intellectual conversation” about that topic, let’s do it off LiP site. My email address is available from this site.

              • Ricardo Sumilang says

                Thanks, Papa Duck. Btw, have you started carrying a short timer’s stick by now? :)

              • Jim Hannah says

                Just noticed your update Ricardo, thank you for the compliment: the definition of “Prissy” is “Prim and Proper”. Seriously though, my original comment was nothing other than a light hearted mood lifter…99 out of 100 people would see that I think. And to be raising a comment I made two years ago is, to say the least, strange, but I believe that this site would best benefit from our simply ignoring each other, as we would doubtless do in real life.

                I wish you well.

  5. Ricardo Sumilang says

    In some rigid societies where the strict observance of culture is very important, it isn’t just what comes out of your mouth that can decide whether you make a sale or lose a possible sale. In Arab countries, for example, you don’t want to cross your legs and show the soles of your shoes at a sales meeting in the presence of Arabs.

    • John Miele says

      Familiar with that one, having lived and worked in the Middle East… It is actually taboo in most muslim countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, though not as strong of a taboo.

      In this case, it truly was carelessness, since I knew about talking salary. No matter how much you traipse around the world, you will eventually screw up. All you can do is to try and be prepared in advance as much as possible.

    • RandyL says

      Ricardo, you’re right. Many times, it is not what is said that can create an unpleasant situation or hurt feelings. Did you know that tipping in Japan is typically an insult? And it can be something so innocent like turning down an offer to eat at someone’s home in the Philippines can genuinely hurt someones feelings. When I made many of my early visits to Japan years ago, and not fully understanding bowing etiquette, I figured it was in my best interest to just bow a lot. Did I offend somebody, probably. But I figured if I was going to offend someone, then might as well be polite about it. 😉

      • John Miele says

        Randy: Actually, to tip someone in Australia was once considered insulting… Not so much any more, but at one time.

        • RandyL says

          Tipping is akin to saying, “here’s more money, do a better job next time!” It’s also an insult to count your change in Japan. It sends a message of distrust or incompetence to the person giving you change.

          • John Miele says

            Randy: In Japan, I always get messed up on the value of the coins there… Especially the 50 yen coin. That said, tipping is probably one of the most difficult habits to break… When you grow up in the US, it almost becomes instinctive, in a way.

  6. says

    John. Your post reminded me of a situation I experienced with a twist. In 1988,I was on an extended visit in Ireland. While in Galway,I found myself upstairs in an old stone building in a Solicitors office. As most here know,a solicitor is an Abogado/Lawyer/Attorney. I walked into his smoke filled office & observed a portly red face Irishman with a cigar in his mouth,an Ill fitted suit & a heavily made up floozy on his lap. He was in his late 50’s & clearly had spent many years over indulging. Anyhow,as I chatted with the man,I discovered (his account) that towards the end of WWII,he had become the British Royal Air Forces AKA RAF youngest pilot at 14 years old. He flew several missions. Every year he traveled across the channel to the annual RAF reunion. His name was “Patty O’Dweyer” as I recall. Anyhow,during the conversation,Patty looked me in the eyes & said “The problem with you Yank’s is you drink to much” I was in his country,but I did not take his criticism to be a friendly gesture. My quick retort was ” If we Yanks drink more than the Irish it is only because we can afford to” The room went silent. I was surprised he didn’t come back with a snide remark. Heck,Lawyers are well trained in rhetoric. Anyway,that was a case where a visitor & his countrymen were being intentional criticized. Patty must have had some axe to grind. Anyway,that was the story. A bit different,but wanted to get it out there while it was on my mind.

    • John Miele says

      Mitch: Quite right that it sounds like it was intentional in that case… What I detailed, though, could really have hurt the girl.

  7. Lenny says

    Just the other day I was talking to a security guard , while my wife was shopping, he asked how much my pension was a month, I told him and said it was just enough or me to use per month here, I asked him what he made a month, he told me 5000P.. big difference..Never crossed my mind like you, that it might have been a gray area, he was the one who initiated the question….

    • John Miele says

      Lenny: You know, something to consider when dealing with service staff here is precisely what you mentioned: We may go to a restaurant, and say the bill is P1,500… I will sometimes think “hey, this is a few days’ wages for the server”.

      It took my a while and lots of developing world travel to come to peace with that type of guilt.

    • Ricardo Sumilang says

      Lenny, while we in the West consider it rude and inappropriate to ask a complete stranger how much he makes, or how old he is, some, but not all, Filipinos who live in the Philippines think nothing of asking the question. It is one of the “oddities” that make up Filipino culture.

  8. Alan says

    Good article John!

    I work in many different countries and I am always suffering from foot in mouth disease.

    On one of my projects in South Korea we had a clash when installing a 3000tonne module on an FSPO (floating oil rig!) which I had informed the Korean company about prior to the event but they chose to ignore.

    Anyway, after the module was installed and the clash happened I found a group of their designers on the ship and the person that I had informed about the clash. As it was noisy I decided to use sign language to communicate. I pointed at the girl and then tugged my ear lobe then pointed to myself intending to mean “you listen to me”. As it turned out I had deeply offended her as pointing at a Korean is considered as a big insult. Her project manager came to speak to me but failed to point out what I had done and the next thing I knew was that I was hauled into my bosses office as the koreans wanted me sacked.

    Luckily, after I explained everything, I was forgiven. I did apologise to the girl in front of her project manager but also informed them that had she listened to me the clash would not have happened. All was forgiven and she avoided me for the rest of the project. That was actually a blessing in disguise as she had a horrible grating voice!

    I certainly learnt a lesson but no consideration was given to the fact that I might not have known about the insult.

    One mistake I often make in the Philippines is making “big eyes” to children. In the UK it is a facial expression that goes along with words like yummy when describing food but in the Philippines I believe it is often used as a rebuke when a child is naughty. I couldn’t figure out why the kids were getting upset when we were just enjoying ice cream at a family event!

    Again I learnt a lesson but it is very hard to stop something when you have been doing it naturally all your life.

    • John Miele says

      Alan: Your experience is another good lesson on cultural differences that should not be overlooked. In the case of Korea, you easily could have been sacked.

  9. Jason Dance says

    Hello John

    Very informative subject and spot on in my opinion. Even the most experienced of travellers would have to be mindful of their actions or spoken words. Have a safe trip home if you’re travelling at the moment.


  10. Mark G says

    I find that even if I make a slight gaff in the Philippines people usually laugh it off. Most are very forgiving. Just the Kano being dumb again. I had lots of serious cultural gaffes with the ex- who was Chinese but fortunately so far only a few with the asawa. Being from an Italian heritage I find the Philippine culture a lot more similar to what I know than the Chinese was or even American for that matter.

    • sanford says

      I totally agree with you John. Be mindful that other countries are not like the U.S. so criticizing or saying bad things about the culture or the government is unacceptable. There are no courts to argue your case just a deportation if found guilty.

  11. Phil R. says

    I found out that if you keep your mouth shut and listen you will be OK .. and do the dumb things with your relatives who will laugh at you and then correct you and laugh some more …. look ,listen and learn is my motto so far so good … Phil R.

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